Monday, June 27, 2011

Snake Devil

This story was just told to me by a friend here in the village as a warning. I'm passing it along to you as entertainment.

In another village, not too far down along the main road, a local woman encountered an attractive stranger. The usual pleasantries were exchanged, Africa-style. Eventually, the young woman brought the handsome man home to her parents and introduced him as her boyfriend. More pleasantries were exchanged, and then the girl prepared water and a basin for the man to bathe in. She left the room. Upon her return, she saw not a man in the basin, but rather an enormous snake!

The young woman fled, but returned later that night. The snake was gone, and the attractive man was waiting for her. "Forget what you saw," he said. "If you tell anyone, I'll kill you."

The girl kept silent. The next day, the couple ventured into the bush. At the sight of the tall, weaving grasses, the man's eyes glittered and he began to transform into a giant snake. "If you tell anyone," the snake hissed, "I'll break every bone in your body."

The girl kept silent. In time she learned that she was pregnant. She would give birth to two beings: one human and one snake. The snake-man promised that as soon as she gave birth, he would take the "children" and disappear forever.

As no women in the area have given birth to snakes recently, we can only assume that the snake-man is still staying down the road. However, I will keep my wits about me should an attractive stranger with a child and baby snake ever want my number.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Progress: More Power, More Problems

Electricity arrived in Loopeng shortly after the end of apartheid. Prior to the arrival of electricity people relied on paraffin or wood fires for cooking, and the well-off had a generator to power their televisions and a few lightbulbs. Power lines, which extended to every home, shanty, mansion or shack, were a great equalizer. Suddenly, everyone was able to cook on a stove, flip a lightswitch and watch the soapies. Life was much improved.

Or was it?

An older Loopeng resident explained to me, during the journey home from town, how much life had worsened in the village since the arrival of electricity. Back in the day, residents relied on local ingredients in their cooking. Meat was prized, and rare. Everyone kept a garden, and grew what little they could. Vegetables were a large part of the local diet. Sure, not everyone got enough to eat, but those that did ate a healthy, balanced diet. All of that came to an end when the power lines introduced their good pal, the freezer.

Gone are the vegetable gardens. Hello, giant bags of frozen chicken! Those who can afford meat now buy it in massive quantities becaue they are able to keep it frozen at home. The local diet has shifted to one of maize for the poor, meat for the rich and vegetables for no one. Naturally, this has caused health problems, but no one seems eager to throw out their freezers and start killing their own chickens again every time they want a bit of meat.

Additionally, as Loopeng has transitioned from a complete, apartheid-era hellhole to a mere, moderately uncomfortable pit of despair, it has attracted shopkeepers. The shopkeepers in Loopeng don't sell expensive organic kale, no, they sell soft drinks, chips and sweets. Basically, everything they sell has as little nutritional value as possible, but the people gladly spend their pension money at these shops. Fat cakes may be terrible for your arteries, but they are filling and, most importantly, cheap. Similar to more developed countries, South Africa's poor generally do not eat properly and this trend has been aided, not abetted, by "progress". So much for "development".

A World Without Fathers

The typical South African village is composed of hordes of young children, a few young people, some mothers, a great number of gogos and a few old men. The number of fathers hovers between zero and none. Where's daddy?

In the most functional of family units, daddy is at work. Many men are employed by mines across the country and their families are unable to accompany them. Thus, the wife and children stay behind in the village while the man is at work. He will likely come home once per month, after pay day. This is the best-case scenario.

There's a wide variety of worst-case scenarios that result in a no-show dad. Perhaps the most unfortunate is death. Poverty kills, particularly in South Africa where HIV/AIDS, rampant alcohol abuse and dangerous roads all make a potentially lethal lifestyle widely available to the country's poor.

Even if a man survives to become a father, he is still likely to be absent. I attribute this mostly to cultural values, or a lack thereof. Children are seen as a financial drain, and thus men have a compelling reason to deny responsibility. By and large, women let them do it as the importance of having a father figure around is ignored. Additionally, most children are born outside of marriage. The father has very little link to the child, who is often packed off to some distant relative and then, effectively, abandoned.

The results of a fatherless society are disasterous. The young, fatherless men of South Africa are poorly educated, frequently unemployed and often part of the large criminal class that makes South Africa such an infamously unpleasant country. This should not be surprising. While the young girls of Loopeng have role models in the gogos and aunts who look after them, clean their homes, cook their food and budget their money, the young boys have role models only in the men wasting away on the front stoop of the bottle store. It's no wonder that they grow up to be the same thing.

While most development projects focus on the plight of girls in third-world countries, I've found the suffering of boys in South Africa just as, if not more, troubling. Without appropriate male role models, young boys in this country are set adrift in the sea of adulthood utterly unprepared to make good decisions and the result is a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Most Children Left Behind: Education in South Africa

South Africa, compared to the rest of the African continent, is developed, wealthy and well-governed. So why does its education system consistently underperform, even and especially when compared to such kleptocratic basket-cases as Zimbabwe? There are a thousand potential explanations, but there are a few in particular that I've gleaned from my experiences as an educator in this country.

By far, the biggest issues are social and involve the break-down of the family unit. Children are abandoned or orphaned, with alarming frequency, at a young age. If they are lucky and taken in by a neighbor or relative, instead of forced into miniature adulthood, they often live a Cinderella-like existence. Except sadly, their prince never comes. In most cases, using children as little more than free labor is not a malicious act, nor a necessity. Instead, it springs from a lack of modern parenting skills. Case in point, several neighborhood children and I spent an afternoon drawing pictures. One child, five years old and infinitely pleased with his scribblings, took his picture to show his adoptive mother. She picked it up, glanced at it and threw it away. He was crushed. The same inattention that is paid to childish drawings is also paid to schoolwork. Children frequently receive no parental feedback regarding their progress, and so naturally begin to view the whole endeavor with the same indifference as their caretaker. While children lucky enough to live with one or both parents may suffer similarly, in my experience biological parents are willing to invest more in the education of their offspring. For example, my host mother's biological children all went to boarding school while her adopted children are stuck in the village schools.

Unfortunately, regardless of the level of parental involvement, many South African schools manage to fail their learners all by themselves. Within the four walls of the average classroom in this country, the biggest obstacle faced by learners is often the educator. Teacher training, in my experience, focuses much too heavily on dealing with the bureaucratic elements of teaching a national curriculum and way too lighly on actual content. Far too frequently I have observed teachers teach information that is factually incorrect. Connecting circuits in parallel has no effect on how bright or dim the lightbulb shines, but I know dozens of students who are convinced it does. Teachers without a solid grasp on content knowledge are doing a huge disservice to their learners, and that has a direct impact on learner performance on national exams.

Granted, being taught the odd bit of misinformation may have little impact on whether a learner passes the class or grade because the passing score necessary is so incredibly low. In my subject, it's 30%. Yes, 30%. You can pass maths literacy with a mere 30%. This is the cause of an enormous amount of trouble. Learners are passed into upper-level courses without a solid grasp on lower-level material. For example, I'm expected to teach linear functions to learners with virtually no understanding of the basics of arithmetic. Because of the pressing and insistent spectre of looming national examinations, there's only so much time available to review before moving on the material to be tested. This is an impossible situation, and cannot be maintained for long. Imagine a Jenga tower where each level consists of only one block. How many levels can be built before it all falls apart, and the learner either fails or drops out? Additionally, the low threshold for passing cheapens the value of school-leaving certificates. Too many learners leave school with just a piece of paper in their pocket, and virtually nothing rattling around their minds after a dozen years in the South African school system.

Such a long post, and I haven't even started in on the curriculum itself! I think I'll save that for another day. Oh, South Africa...

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Surreal Life

It's technically Sunday morning. I just stumbled into my hovel. My Saturday night might seem mundane in America, but it was surreal to live such an ordinary night in Africa.

My friend picked me up around 7:30. We drove about three minutes to his brother's house. Wandered inside, greeted his brother, who was hard at work on the stove, and plopped on a couch to watch DVDs. Dinner was served. We gave up on the scratchy DVDs and switched over to good 'ol television. Then we all trooped outside into the cold, drove back to my friend's place, and chatted until I got tired and walked home.

Ordinary, right?

Except that the roads we drove on weren't paved, there were absolutely zero traffic signs, and the night was pitch black. Dinner was Ethiopian stew, made by an actual Ethiopian. The DVDs were traditional Ethiopian music and drama. The television stations were all South African, but playing terrible, old American films. Back at my friend's room (adjacent to mine; we're neighbors) we huddled around a space heater for survival. When we spoke to each other, we managed to comprehend only about a third of what we were each attempting to communicate. Turns out Amharic is rather tricky.

While I consider myself exceptionally lucky to have such great friends in Loopeng, spending time with them is always a bit, well, surreal.

Working with Others

Working with others is hard, particularly when the people you work with don't necessarily want to be associated with you at all. This is conundrum I find myself in lately. For years, practically ever since the founding of the local mission, do-gooders have flocked to Loopeng from Europe and Australia to do, well, "good". They are usually white.

Hey, I'm white too! In the minds of my fellow residents of Loopeng, this means that I exist on the same wave-length as the Euralian visitors, we are all associated with the same organization, we have each others phone numbers, are in constant communication and get along great. Absolutely none of that is true, of course, but I can't seem to convince anyone of that. I've barely convinced people that New York is in the US of A, not Germany or Australia.

Generally, I'm untroubled by people's assumptions, but lately it's been putting me in a real pickle. See, people keep pointing out different projects they want done, and sites they want visited, by the Euralians. The local impression of the Euralians is that they have deep pockets, and so people are eager to invite them here and there to help out with various maintenance projects.

"When are the people from Germany coming? Australia? They must come... They must see... I want them to..." I'm asked this frequently. What makes it so uncomfortable is that I have no idea when they're coming, no idea if they're able or willing to do said projects, and very little in the way of contact information. I just smile and nod along. I do know a group, or two, is coming later this month, so I usually mumble something about June and hurry away.

I'm thinking about hanging a giant banner from my house for when the visitors arrive.

"Welcome back! Please visit Mampestad and Agrico! Thanks!"

Other than that, I'm not sure what else to do. I just hope it all works out, because if it doesn't, who will be responsible for cleaning up the mess and soothing the ruffled feathers?

I will. I may not be formally associated with the visitors, some may routinely trash myself and my colleagues as "unqualified", many others may leave a trail of missed opportunities and frustration in their wake, but since we're all white foreigners in Africa, we have to stick together.

Anyone have a large banner they'd like to ship over?

(Don't worry, I promise that's not my only plan. Plan B is much more traditional. I have three e-mail addresses for people I plan to grovel to. Good thing Peace Corps teaches humility.)

What I Read

Today is a beautiful African "winter" day. The sun is shining, it's warm enough for flip-flops and I'm not wearing a hat, gloves or a blanket. Yay! I've spent most of the morning outside, basking the precious warmth for the first time in quite a while. During the late cold spell, when it was too cold to go outside, I spent a lot of time in bed with a book. I averaged about one book a day. It was ridiculous. My source of reading material was the school library. Between Books for Africa and the Northern Cape provincial library service, Moshaweng High School has quite the selection. There's everything from Shakespeare to John Grisham, including Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton and a host of unknowns.

First, I worked my way through Mary Higgins Clark-style mysteries which I once really enjoyed, but Stieg Larsson's trilogy has spoiled me and now the other books pale in comparison. I moved on to New York Times bestsellers by unfamiliar, and often first-time, authors. My only conclusion is that there must be no correlation between the bestsellers list and actual book quality. I wondered how a few of them even got published. I disliked Eat, Pray, Love, but at least it was coherent. In the interest of not bashing relative newbies to the literary world, my lips are sealed as to book titles and authors not worth your time. I'll let you discover them on your own.

However, I will tell you that the book I just finished last night was rather good. It's Nick Hornby's How to be Good. I tried reading another of Hornby's books (the Polysyllabic Spree) but I just couldn't get through it. How to be Good was a different story. Compared to authors I've indulged in recently, Hornby is a seasoned professional, and it shows. The book has definite structure and a distinct style. The theme is obvious and interesting. The plot is somewhat bizarre and not exactly enjoyable (a middle-aged couple on the brink of divorce, saved by an alternative "healer"), but Hornby's voice is amusing enough that I muddled through and wound up with some quality food for thought.

The premise of How to be Good is that everyone wants to be good. Everyone knows how to be good. But no one really is good. No one is willing to act on their beliefs, at least not to the full extent of their potential to be "good". As a Peace Corps volunteer whose job description might be summed up simply as "do-gooder", Hornby's analysis of the chasm between morality and charity was thought-provoking. As much as like to think, "I'm in Peace Corps! I'm a good person!" That isn't necessarily true. I could do more. I could do better. I'm not inherently "good", and unless you donate most of your income, give away your possesions and let the homeless sleep in your spare room, neither are you. How to be Good won't make you feel warm and fuzzy, but it is a good book and it may help you justify however much you spend on movies and take-aways instead of donating to, oh, say, Save Darfur.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Wet Start to the Dry Season

Most of Africa has only two distinct seasons: the wet and the dry. For equatorial Africa, spring and autumn are irrelevant when it's burning hot year round. For my little corner of the world, while the temperature does vary with the season, by far the most noticeable difference is the level of precipitation. During the hot summer months, rain is frequent. It rarely falls during the day, but I swear it rained every night in January this year. Winter is much different. It doesn't rain at all, not one drop, during the dry season. All the plants dry up, the landscape turns brown and ugly. Goats reach new levels of desperation in their endless quest for food. At least that's the theory anyway.

In reality, I haven't seen the sun for three days. It's been raining, or at least drizzling, all day, everyday. The high temperatures are only in the mid-fifties. It's cold and wet. In my opinion, that's the very worst weather combination. It's absolute misery. While the rain continues, the cold has done it's duty and most plants are dead. The school garden's moment in the sun is well over for this year. I'll try again next year, when and if it warms up enough to be outside again. Thankfully, I have wonderful neighbors and colleagues who cleverly invested in space heaters. As it is my last winter in South Africa, I can't quite bring myself to buy my own, but they certainly are nice. It's good to have feeling in my fingers and toes at least once a day.

I was quite toasty this morning, when the heater in the computer lab was turned on. Unfortunately, the heater sucked up what little electricity is available in that room and the lights promptly flickered and died, along with all the computers. *sigh* I switched off the heater. Maybe I can rip it out of the wall and take it to my house? Surely no one would notice. The sad part is that after a multitude of charities (including US-funded) outfitted the tiny, African classroom with heaps and loads of modernity and expensive electronic equipment, the space simply couldn't handle it and now it's mostly functionally useless. Shame. At least we get a good metaphor out of it.

On the bright side, I've booked myself an upcoming weekend in Kuruman. May hot showers, great food and excellent company ensue!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

What I Wore: Frigid Edition

I had an interesting exchange recently, on a phone call with my mother.

"Mom, it's so cold here!"

"I don't mean to make you jealous, but it's 65 and sunny here."

It was 76 in Loopeng. It seems like I've over-achieved in terms of adjusting to the heat. Now anything below eighty calls for a sweater.

Since this coversation with my mother, the temperature has dropped much further. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I see is my own breath. As a cheapskate, I have nothing, no heater, no hot water bottle, to combat the freezing temperatures. I have only layers.

It is 51 degrees as I write this. I'm wearing slippers, two pairs of socks, flannel pajamas, two fleeces, a bathrobe, a hat and a blanket. While I have little to no feeling in my fingers and toes, I'm reasonably toasty otherwise. Still, it is at times like this when I wonder how I will ever survive a New England winter again. I'm dressed like an Eskimo now, but two years ago this was "skirt weather". No more!

On the bright side, wearing a blanket to work is perfectly acceptable here and you can bet that the blanket around my shoulders right now is goint to be there all through school tomorrow. Maybe I'll just wear it until it warms up in September. That's just 12 weeks away! I can do this for 12 weeks. The power of positive thinking...

Town Bound

It's been a while since I recounted an average day as a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa, so let me tell you about my day.

Due to some administrative error in the States, volunteer stipends were delayed by almost two weeks. Due to my recent vacation, I had no savings to fall back on. Basically, I've been living off scraps for about two weeks. It's been rough, though not impossible. Anyway, a recent paycheck, a desperate need for groceries and an opportunity for Shaka to see the vet all led me to pop off to Kuruman on a Thursday (it's exam time at school, nobody missed me).

Wednesday night I called my favorite taxi driver.

"Hello, buti (brother), are you going to town tomorrow?"

"Yes, I will pick you up at 7, ne?"

"Gosiame (okay)."

Of course, he showed up at 7:30. I waited by the fire my host mother had built for breakfast and attempted to de-freeze my hair. In preparation for visiting a white town where people know what clean hair looks like, I washed mine the night before. The temperature then dropped, and it quite literally froze. Once I was sufficiently warmed, I took Shaka for a short walk. Out in the nearby veld I saw something terrifying: frost. Ulp. Apparently due to all the rain this past summer, we're in for an especially long and cold winter. What fun.

The taxi pulled up, Shaka and I climbed in and settled down for the two+ hour trip to Kuruman. Well, it actually doesn't take that long to get to town, what takes so long is wandering around the village picking people up until the vehicle (a mini-bus) is full to bursting. I'm not complaining, all the people made the trip cozy and warm.

Once in Kuruman, I paid a single fare (R33) and began a brisk walk to the local animal clinic. The doctor was busy, so his wife prepared a cage for Shaka and I left him there while I did my shopping.

Or, at least I tried to do my shopping. The power was out. I had only a debit card. You get the picture. Luckily, I had a stash of borrowed cash at a guesthouse. Another volunteer was kind enough to lend me some funds to tide me over until our payday finally arrived. Due to school commitments and an unfortunate transport situation in my village, today was the first day I was free to pick up the money. I walked up to the guesthouse and settled in next to a space heater for a chat. What did we talk about? Oh, you know, mining strikes, the bush war against Swapo, literal battle scars, lack of service delivery in the villages... the usual.

Armed with cash, I finally worked up the inner-strength to leave the space heater and actually run my errands. That done, it was back to the vet's office to hear his verdict on the state of Shaka. The good news is that he'll be fine. The bad news is that the wound on his chest is a chemical burn. I have no idea how he got it, nor what sort of chemicals are used at a cattle post that would cause this kind of damage. Anyway, I've been given a special ointment to apply several times a day for a couple weeks. That's right, I'll be spending the rest of June playing doctor to a dog.

The good animal doctor gave Shaka and I a ride to the taxi rank in his bakkie. Shaka managed to not fall out this time. I was relieved. Near the rank were a few Loopeng taxis. The first two were full. The third was practically empty. It took two hours to fill. Actually, it left slightly less than full. No one wanted to sit next to my dog. While his wound was dirty and covered by matted fur in the morning, in the afternoon, after the vet visit, the area had been shaved, cleaned and covered with a greenish goo. Apparently, some people were afraid they'd become sick if they got too close. Nevermind, I paid for two seats and got some extra stretching room.

We arrived back in Loopeng after dark. Once I hauled all my bags back to my room, I realized I left my jacket in the taxi. Brilliant. It's likely gone forever now. It wasn't particularly cute, but I'm that much colder now. After wrestling Shaka to apply the ointment (it stings just a tad), I wandered over to my host family's indoor fire.

In a small building, just a couple metres from the main house, is an indoor firepit. At night, my host mother builds a fire and shuts up the building. The result is a refuge of warmth. I love it in there, even if the highly flammable thatch roof makes me nervous. Tonight I brought a bag of coconut marshmallows, a bar of chocolate and a pack of biscuits to make South African s'mores with my host mother, her grandchild and the three orphans. The kids and I did this last year, but it was new for my host mother. She was pretty pysched. So was I, for that matter. Coconut marshmallows are pretty great, especially when hot.

When I was sufficiently stuffed and thawed out, I ventured back to my room and crawled into bed. I get a lot of sleep in the winter here. It is simply too cold to be awake!

And that, is a fairly typical day for me here in SA.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Porky the Pigeon

Moshaweng High School recently acquired a school mascot. His name is Porky, and he is a pigeon. A rather pathetic excuse for a pigeon, seeing as he can't fly, but an otherwise garden-variety pigeon. Actually, I only assume he's a pigeon. In reality, he may be some kind of fancy African bird species, but trust me, he looks just like a bird you might see in New York City, pecking at yesterday's pizza.

Anyway, Porky wandered into the schoolyard one afternoon and was caught by the general worker, who tried to hand him over to me in order to replace my missing dog. I politely declined, so he found an old cardboard box, poked some holes in it, sprinkled the bottom with some seeds and stuck the bird inside. The box was put in the storage room cum office space, and it has stayed there, with Porky inside, everyday since.

Well, technically, the bird just sleeps in the box in the storage room. During the day, Porky is taken out and allowed to roam about the school yard. Shaka discovered this today and promptly decided to make Porky his new play-mate. The poor bird didn't have a chance. Shaka started running for him, jaws agape, and all Porky could do was hop, waddle and flap helplessly. What Porky lacks in physical advantage, however, he more than makes up for in brains. He waddle-flapped into a classroom, I quickly slammed the door, and poor Shaka was left all alone, with nothing but a mouth full of feathers.

The Moshaweng Menagerie is growing. I'm so tempted to add a few goldfish to the collection. That's educational, right?